Combat, what is it like in this game?


What is combat like in Ars Magica? Is it watered down and real generic, like in AD&D, or is in gritty and dangerous and uses hit locations with critical charts?

Combat in Ars Magica work like this:

Every physical attack that a character has is assigned four pre-calculated characteristics: Initiative, Attack, Defence, and Damage.

After rolling to determine the order of attack, the attacking player rolls a Stress Die and adds the result to his Attack while the defender does the same thing with his Defense.

If the attack was successful (Attack > Defense), the attacker adds her Damage to (Attack - Defense) and the defender is allowed a Soak roll to try and absorb some of the damage. Any damage not soaked by the defender becomes a Wound that penalizes subsequent rolls (including Defense, but not Soak) until it's healed.

The "Lords of Men" supplement includes some additional combat rules, but they're very much in the same vein as those in the core book. Basically, Ars Magica's combat system is geared toward "Abstract, but Deadly". "Critical hits", for example, are adequately accounted for by the probability of extraordinary success on an Attack roll (or correspondingly by botching a Defense roll) inherent in using a stress die or via a supplemental rule from both A&A and LoM that potentially assigns new flaws whenever a character suffers an Incapacitating wound...

PS: I'm afraid I've made the whole thing sound dreadfully complicated and dull, so I'll just add a note that it's all much simpler than it sounds when used in actual play (the official character sheets are quite good)...

I'd say it manages to be gritty and dangerous without the need for critical charts or hit locations.

One of the major reasons for this is the nature of stress die. If you roll a botch, your total result is reduced to zero, which on a defence roll may well mean instant incapacitation/death.


It is not tactical in a DnD sense, since it is a secondary feature of the game. When you walk with what would be starting level 8 mages in the group among level 1 warriors it is not the high priority, really. Despite not having the same amount of options than other games that take combat as their centre, it is a dangerous thing. people die in combat most of the time if they do not surrender quite soon. It does not use critical hit charts and stuff like that (ars does not use many charts, in general, even if a lot of info is tabled out) but it is gritty. And medieval. There is no instant healing spells in Ars, so people die from their festering wounds quite a lot, and you can't certainly keep happily moving around and battling monsters when you have been hit hard in the previous encounter.


Well, that's not entirely true, but since most magicians can't cast such spells without expending Vis (which constitutes a limiting resource) distinction is largely academic. Therefore, most healing magics in Mythic Europe come in the form of granting a Recovery Bonus, thus increasing the odds of a speedy, infection free, convalescence.

I should have added "uin practical terms". The meaning stands, though: instahealing, nope by any far shot on a regular game. healing magic is rare in the best circumstances, and nonexistant in most games since it is difficult and quite bad at what it does. As Gremlin says, magi tend to rely in giving recovery bonuses, but that means that walking around still gets you rolling to see if your wound ffesters, even if you have a nice bonus to prevent it. And when you roll 30 times when you are in a not-so-clean environment (swamp, forest, city, catacomb, underground mine,...) you end up botching the roll anyway and moving a step closer to death. Quite a different experience to getting back to full hit points in Dungeons or similar games. you need to be more careful than in other systems like these.


The phase new players often use in my group when the grasp the combat system is Death Spiral. Every wound you take degrades your combat ability, which effectively increases the damage done by the next blow. This makes combat fairly quick. The deadly element, in my experience, more often comes from healing than combat. I've seen a character suffer a medium wound in combat which, with some bad recovery rolls, nearly killed him six months later (he was saved a deaths door by magical aid).

Combat is lethal, but not immediately so, and relatively fast. Usually, there will be 4, maybe 5 rounds of combat, during which one party or the other will have a deciding blow. That blow decides who either dies or withdraws, normally.

Ars Magica combat is very abstracted. Its not a detailed analysis of where each blow lands.

It is, however potentially very deadly and quite gritty. Staying in a fight that you're outclassed in will result in your rapid demise.

It doesn't have hit points. As such, it is entirely possible that a solid blow early on in a fight will incapicate or outright kill their opponent - even if it is the first blow, and even if it is with a dagger.

Goodness yes. We had a PC magus do this - I think the attack roll was about 96 or so.
Hs opponent went down quick.

The impact of the die roll is sometimes crushing, because it is open ended. Some players break all laws of propability and roll all too well. Other players Botch to no end, but that can usually be remedied. Constantly rolling 1 or 2 1's is a pain for a SG, wanting to provide the players with a challenge and not killing them all or ending with a cake-walk.

It is also worth noting that combat can be quite fast-paced since there is only initially rolled Initiative, this sequence stays the same through the encounter. Only one Attack and then one or more Defense rolls per turn, no rolls for Damage or Soak since these are function of the prior rolls. Net like earlier editions!

Finally I'd like to mention that melee is usually dangerous for magi, massed combat more so. Sure, they can and usually will cast protective spells, but many magi I see played absolutely suck at this or have none. It's a good thing to have a shield grog as Defender!

I ran a bar fight in a one on one game session.

It went well and extremely fun, but definitely required a pen and paper.

As for initiative, I have found that subtracting wound and fatigue modifiers from the original roll for initiative is a excellent way to show how your speed in combat changes as you get tired or hurt.

I would suggest to any new player or player that has not experienced combat before in Ars to run five scenes. Start with one on one fights. The move to two on one, and then two against two, and the move to small group verses one fighter and then two groups against each other.

Run these scenes once or twice just to get a idea of how you want to keep track of combat, because it can get out of control pretty fast if you aren't prepared. Although, if you have a good group who is okay with only rolling the important stuff, then you can just storytell the other fights and only roll the PC peeps.

This is good advice for any RPG game system. :slight_smile: